By Robin Gurwitch, PhD
The assassination of John F. Kennedy. The explosion of the Challenger. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. There are few events in our nation’s history that have made an impact on all of us. Like most adults (and even older children and teens), I remember where I was when I first learned about the terrorist attacks of 9/11. I remember the discussion with my daughter, then 11, when she came home from school that day. We spent time discussing what happened, correcting misunderstandings, and talking through her worries and concerns. Much time was spent reassuring her of her safety and mine.
Children and teens have grown up in a world changed forever by these attacks. They have little or no memory of the United States not involved in the wars which followed the attacks. Media coverage of large-scale tragedies, including coverage of anniversaries of such events, can lead to emotional stress for some children and teens. The intensive 15th anniversary coverage of the terrorist attacks of September 11 may produce such distress.
Teenagers may have new questions about these events, particularly in light of recent terrorist attacks around the world. Young children may have questions for the first time as they watch or hear about this important anniversary. As the attacks have resulted in a war that is ongoing, more questions, worries, and new concerns may be raised. Finally, although the mastermind of the attacks, Osama bin Laden, has been killed, new conversations about ISIS and other terrorist organizations have taken his place in discussions about terrorism. Children may strive to understand how these events impact the future.
Parents and other caregivers provide a source of stability, comfort, and love in difficult times. As we reflect, remember, and commemorate the events of September 11, 2001, here are some tips to help your children as you watch coverage and talk to each other about the 9/11 15th anniversary.
1. Talk about it
Children may have many questions about what they are seeing and hearing related to the events of September 11 and the aftermath. For young children, they may not know what happened, except in large brushstrokes. For teenagers, they have grown up with 9/11 being a central part of their history.
Start the conversation—ask your children what they are thinking and about any concerns or questions they may have about the anniversary and resulting events.
If you make the first move in this conversation, your children and teens know you are comfortable talking about difficult topics. Even if they say they are not interested in talking, the fact that you are willing is what’s important. Continue to check in with your children. Believe it or not, taking the first step may lead to other talks about difficult events in your children’s lives now and in the future.
Check in to see what is being discussed at school and with friends. Be aware of how your child(ren)’s school will commemorate the 15th Knowing in advance can help led the conversation and help you to be more sensitive to your child(ren)’s worries and concerns as well as their desires to help to make a difference.
Many young children at the time of the attacks are now young adults. Parents should reach out to them as well. Just because they may no longer live at home does not mean they would not benefit from your support and an opportunity to talk about this event and what it means to them.
As you talk about this anniversary, also discuss where we are as a nation. Discuss how we can commemorate and continue to move forward, together. Our nation continues to change. As we reflect on this 15th anniversary, consider what beliefs and values about how we treat others you wish to share with your children and teens. Consider how hatred was the impetus for the terrorist attacks and discuss how you would like to see this change in today’s world.
As you talk about the events of 9/11, remembering and commemorating this anniversary, assure children of all ages about what is being done to keep our country safe from future attacks. Take this opportunity to talk about your family’s emergency plans (or to make a plan), assuring them that in a crisis, your primary concern will be their safety and protection.
3. Be observant
Although it has been 15 years, the events of 9/11 changed our nation and the world. With the intensive coverage and discussion of the September 11th events and the anniversary, some children, may have increased distress.
Be mindful of any behavior changes you notice in your children. Reactions to stressful events include mood swings, increased irritability, changes in sleeping or eating patterns, and problems with attention and concentration.
Young children may be more demanding, regress in their behaviors, and act younger than their age; teens may be more withdrawn as well as impulsive. As routine returns, these behavior and emotional changes will likely subside within a short time, however, if prolonged, it’s important that you to seek professional support and counseling.
Even if children were not directly impacted by the attacks, coverage of this event may bring up losses that children may have experienced in their lives, “triggering” emotional distress.
Military children may have experienced parental deployment(s) in the last 15 years. Coverage of the anniversary is likely to include discussion of the wars resulting from the terrorist attacks. For these children, stressors associated with deployment(s) may arise. If concerned, parents should consult their pediatrician or mental health professional, not just for the child, but also for the entire family.
4. Be patient
Stress, as we think back to the events 15 years ago, not only affects our children, but it affects adults, too. We need to be a little more patient with ourselves and with our children. Children are masters at reading our moods and our distress. It is ok to share with them, at a level they can understand, our memories, and our progress for ourselves and for our country. A little extra attention, particularly when they do something well (e.g., chores, homework, get along with siblings) will also go a long way.
When I reflect on 9/11, I remember reaching out to my family and friends, both near and far. I know this was true for most of us. Children and teens feel most secure and are most resilient when they have connections with others. One of the best connections is a strong bond with you.
Take time to engage in activities with your child. This can be anything from reading a bedtime story with your child to reviewing the day with your tween or teen or even cooking together. Help your child maintain other important connections such as time with friends, extracurricular activities, and involvement in school activities.
This is also a time to consider connections with the larger community. Consider how you and your family want to mark this anniversary. It may be with an act of kindness toward others, including first responders who help on a daily basis or toward members of our military and veteran community who support our country’s freedoms. At anniversaries, communities and faith-based organizations often sponsor events; check these out! Discuss with your children how they may want to commemorate and make a difference on this anniversary and in the future. Validate your children’s ideas and see if you can incorporate them into your activities.
Reach out again. Reach out to family and friends. Reaffirm or restore connections.
6. Limit TV time
The deluge of images that will be replayed as the media marks the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks can easily overwhelm children and teens, especially younger children.
Be sure to let the youngest children know that the footage on the news and the internet is being replayed, and the disaster is not happening over and over again.
In fact, for young children, exposure to coverage is recommended to be extremely limited.
For older children and teens, it is best to watch coverage together and talk about concerns and answer any questions. This is a way to begin the conversation, to discuss the history of the attacks and how it has shaped our world. Review how far you have come.
Remember, tweens and teens may gather much information from social media sites. Talk to them about what they are “hearing” from peers. As you talk, gently correct any misinformation and misperceptions.
7. Show compassion, tolerance, and respect
Use the events depicted on the news as a platform from which to teach the importance of compassion and charity.
Help children to develop tolerance and respect for others. This can result in a decrease in bullying behaviors in schools and an increase for respecting diversity in general.
In the face of recent events in our country and around the world, hatred and intolerance, and fear seem to be on the rise. But, this does not have to be the case.
For Muslim families, children may face hatred and intolerance more so than other children, particularly now. Unfortunately, Islamophobia seems to be on the rise. The 9/11 anniversary may exacerbate this. Families can address this directly with their children and teens. Check-in to see how this unfounded fear is impacting them at school, in activities, and with friends. Discuss and even practice what children and teens can say should someone bully or belittle them or their religion. Most importantly, they need to know that they do not have to face this alone. You are there for support—You have their backs. As parents, you also do not have to address this alone. Talk to school administrators, your faith-based leaders, and reach out to community leadership about how these issues are being addressed. Just because it exists, does not mean it should continue or that there is nothing to be done to change it.
In the aftermath of all events, we see acts of kindness, heroic and selfless actions, and support for each other. Share these stories from 9/11, too.
Again, this anniversary presents an opportunity to share your beliefs, values, and hopes for how we treat each other and our vision of the future.
Your children will also have ideas of how to promote these ideals. Listen and support these—you may be surprised at what they have to offer!
8. Maintain routine
No matter what else is happening in the world, routine is important to children of any age. They need the opportunity to play and to interact with other children. Friendships in the teen years are extremely important to their development; incorporating opportunities to spend time with friends into weekly routines can build important connections. Routine is important in the classroom and at home. Routine helps to provide a sense of stability for children, a feeling important after a crisis occurs or as they watch news about a crisis event.
9. Volunteer together
All children gain a sense of control, security, and empathy when they help others, and in the midst of crisis, they really can emerge as active agents of positive change. Encourage them to help support local charities and crisis relief efforts as you remember, reflect, and commemorate the 15th anniversary of September 11. Or better yet, join them in doing so! Communities, faith-based organizations, and national charities often sponsor activities for families to become a part of the giving. Be a role model. Discuss together how these activities can make a difference.
In the aftermath of September 11, thousands of children lost a parent. In the years since, more parents have died who may have helped in some way on that fateful day and in the weeks afterward. These children have grown up “in the shadow” of 9/11. Their traumatic loss was a national loss. Their grief, a shared grief. Yet, they also needed to grieve their loved ones, out of the public eye. They needed to cope and to adjust to life without a parent. There are no “rules” of how to do this. Goals, choices, and world views may have been significantly shaped by 9/11. Take time to discuss these. Guilt about actions taken or not taken are common in the aftermath of traumatic deaths. Hopefully, children directly impacted by the attacks have had support to cope with any reactions, their grief, and guilt.
Many children had parents who were also changed forever by their involvement in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. For all of these children and adolescents, 9/11 has also shaped who they have become and goals they may set for their future. As the anniversary is covered, and stories and images repeated, these adolescents and young adults may experience stress reactions as before, but this time, hopefully, with support from loved ones, it will not be as difficult.
I think about my friend, an EMS responder in NYC. She gave her all at Ground Zero, and continued to do so. She also worked to help her two young children cope with the aftermath of these events. Like others, health concerns have developed. Like others, anniversaries bring memories. Like others, she also takes time to hug her children a bit more and to reflect on changes and progress over the years. She shares her story. She is one of thousands whose lives changed on 9/11. I thank her for what she did and I commend her for where she is now.
After a traumatic event, many, particularly those impacted, strive to make meaning of the tragedy. Following 9/11, thousands of children had a parent killed or injured. More have experienced life changes due to the terrorist attacks. Over two million children have experienced parental deployment(s). Consider with your children, teens, and young adults how they have made meaning of what happened. How has their “life narrative” changed? For example, a son of a first responder killed in 9/11, pursued a career like his father and is now a first responder. Meaning making is unique for each person, but it can be an important part of the healing process.
For those directly impacted by the terrorist attacks, know that services remain available for families. Never be afraid or embarrassed to reach out—they can make an important difference (even 15 years later). For families who received services, know that this anniversary may bring up thoughts and feelings that seemed to have been resolved. This is common. It is ok to reach out again for support. This anniversary may also give rise to renewed commitments, strengths, hopes, and dreams for a brighter future ahead.
As I write, I have many emotions and thoughts that rise to the surface. These attacks changed me and I acknowledge these changes. I became part of the National Child Traumatic Stress Network and reaffirmed my involvement in the American Red Cross and the American Psychological Association’s Disaster Response Network. I shifted much of my professional work to focus on how to improve family relationships in our military families coping with deployments and renewed my resolve to support our understanding of how disasters, including the impact of terrorism on children. I made new friendships that have lasted for 15 years. Finally, on this 15th Anniversary, I will FaceTime with my daughter. I will reach out to family and friends near and far. I will reach out to say, “I love you” and “I’m glad to have you as a part of my life.” Together, we will reflect on where we were and where we have come. And, we will talk about what we hope for our future.
Dr. Robin Gurwitch has been involved in understanding the impact of terrorism and disasters on children since the 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City, providing direct service, training, and conducting research. She is a member of the APA Disaster Resource Network, American Red Cross, and the National Child Traumatic Stress Network. Dr. Gurwitch was recently appointed to the HHS National Advisory Committee on Children and Disasters.
Image source: Flickr user Josh Liba via Creative Commons